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The Clicker: From analog to digital

Peter Rojas
Every Thursday Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, a weekly column on television and technology:

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Whether we're talking about OpenCable, the Broadcast Flag, or a myriad of other FCC-related topics, we're really only talking about one thing: MONEY. Specifically, we're talking about the billions of dollars that are the center-flag in the big tug-of-war game that is the "analog" spectrum.

Quite simply – the government wants the analog spectrum back and broadcasters aren't in any rush to relinquish it. Throw in a big helping of politicians being, well, politicians and we've got ourselves one heck of a picnic.

But let's back up for a moment and lay some groundwork.

First, the terms ?analog? and ?digital? are a bit of a misnomer. Both digital television (DTV) and traditional television are broadcast using analog signals. The difference comes not from how they broadcast but instead from what they broadcast. When traditional televisions tune into an analog signal they see a series of waves. These waves are directly used to drive the television.

?Digital? signals add a step to the process. Like traditional broadcasts, digital televisions receive a series of waves. However, unlike traditional broadcasts these waves are used to encode digital streams called transport streams (very similar to the program streams you see on DVDs). The television then processes these transport streams and displays the picture.

If it?s the same signal, why is the government so anxious to reclaim the ?analog? spectrum?

Clearly there is an issue of redundancy. It?s wasteful for broadcasters to transmit the same signal twice, once with digital content and once with analog content.

However, the more important reason has to do with where the signals are located in the spectrum. You see ? as you move up the spectrum two things happen. First, signals travel farther. Second, signals have less penetration ability. For instance, VHF (i.e. channels 2-13) signals do a much better job of going through walls, buildings, trees, etc. On the flip side, the UHF signals will travel farther distances, but will usually need better line-of-sight and a bigger roof-mounted antenna.

Historically, this is the reason that the major networks in urban areas are located in the VHF range (lower on the spectrum). By locating themselves in the VHF range, ABC, NBC, etc. gave consumers the ability to tune in by using only rabbit ears. For many years, this made sense.

However, with approximately 80 percent of consumers subscribing to some form of cable or satellite, the high-penetrating VHF signals are being underutilized. As such, when the FCC began the transition to digital, the DTV stations were placed further up in the spectrum (into the UHF range) where it?s more appropriate to have signals designed to cover an entire market. This left the VHF frequencies available for devices/industries where penetration is more important than distance.

The FCC is anxious to auction off these frequencies. And why wouldn?t they be? There would be a boom of technological development revolving around the freed frequencies, and sales of these frequencies could generate billions of dollars.

The problem? DTV adoption has been slow on the uptake.

What does DTV adoption have to do with it, isn?t there a switchover date?

Well, yes and no. Lawmakers have established a switchover date of December 31, 2006. At that point, analog broadcasts would cease and traditional televisions would ?go dark.? The FCC would then be free to auction off these frequencies.

However, fearing hordes of voters with suddenly-useless televisions, a backup was established: if fewer than 85% of American households are able to receive a digital signal, the switchover will be postponed until at such point this condition is met.

When, nearly a decade ago, this 85% escape hatch was established, few thought that it would be met. Now, as we near the date, the idea is even more laughable. By requiring an 85% coverage rate, the FCC all but guaranteed that adoption would be slow. Television makers, broadcasters, and cable companies all knew that the date would have to be pushed back. Consequently, they did very little to prepare for the switch.

Isn?t it time to get tough?

Certainly that?s what many think. In the last few weeks such notables as Mark Cuban, U.S. House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, and a group of high-tech CEOs have all called for a speedier transition. They have (rightly) come to the conclusion that, without a firm date, little progress will be made.

Representative Barton has gone so far as to claim that he has the votes to pass a bill that essentially resets the deadline but without the escape hatch. He further clarified to reporters that any postponement of that deadline would be minor (i.e. less than a year).

The likelihood of such a bill actually going into law is slim. However, one thing is clear: without some sort of drop dead date, the transition will be painfully slow.

As always, if you have comments or suggestions, feel free to write to

Until next week, save my seat!

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